Syria Comes of Age

An extraordinary population boom fuels the revolt against Bashar al-Assad's regime.


Each day, for 268 days, there have been the same videos: Syrians coming come out of the woodwork, filling alleys in previously quiescent neighborhoods. They have become experts in the art of protest, employing ornate signs and candles to call for the end of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and, increasingly, the president’s execution. They are killed in steadily increasing numbers — more than 4,000 by last count, according to the United Nations.

Who represents these protesters is a matter of dispute — a Syrian opposition delegation was memorably pelted with eggs in Cairo last month by fellow anti-regime activists who objected to the group’s apparent willingness to negotiate with the Assad regime. But who the protesters are is no mystery: They are the product of an extraordinary demographic boom in Syria that has left huge swathes of the country disenfranchised and poor. And they are very angry.

From the 1960s to the early 1990s, Syria boasted one of the most rapidly expanding populations in the world. The country’s population doubled from 5.3 million in 1963 to 10.6 million in 1986, and then more than doubled again during the past quarter-century, to approximately 23 million. Before birth rates began falling in the mid-1980s, only two countries — Yemen and Rwanda — had higher fertility rates, according to Youssef Courbage, a researcher at the National Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris, in a paper titled "Fertility Transition in Syria."

At the peak of Syria’s demographic boom, 44 Syrians were born for every 1,000 people, far exceeding the population growth in neighboring Lebanon (30 births per 1,000 people), and dwarfing that in the United States (16 births per 1,000), according to World Bank data. Population growth was also disproportionately focused in the countryside, creating a swelling class of have-nots in the new Syria.

Syria’s birth rates have declined in recent years, but still remain equal to other revolutionary states in the Arab world. Twenty-four Syrians were born for every 1,000 people in 2008 — the same as Egypt, and exceeding Tunisia’s rate of 18 births per 1,000 people.

If the areas where these trends have been felt the strongest were superimposed on a map, they would largely line up with the regions of greatest unrest in Syria. From the south in Deraa, where the protests first gained momentum, to the east in Deir al-Zour, this is a revolt of the neglected countryside. It is also a revolt of long-persecuted cities such as Hama and down-and-out suburbs in Damascus and Homs — neighborhoods that many of the migrants from the countryside call home.

The Syrian government is at least partially to blame for the country’s runaway birth rates. As far back as 1956, Youssef Helbaoui, the head of economic analysis in Syria’s Planning Department, argued that "A birth-control policy has no reason for being in this country. [Thomas] Malthus could not find any followers among us."

President Hafez al-Assad, who presided over the population spike of the 1980s, followed the same policies as his predecessors. As Courbage notes, he kept contraceptives scarce and argued that high growth rates "have stimulated proper socio-economic improvements." Until 1987, his government even encouraged births by awarding medals and small material gifts to families with over 10 children.

The result is that, in this era of youth revolt, Syria has one of the youngest populations in the Arab world. From the mid-1960s through the 1990s, the proportion of Syria’s population below age 15 held constant at roughly half, while the percentage of Syrians older than 70 declined to a meager 3 percent. Even today, after fertility rates have declined, nearly 60 percent of Syrians are believed to be under the age of 20.

This long-running demographic boom has fundamentally transformed the country that the Assad family has ruled for over 60 years. At the end of World War II in 1945, when Hafez al-Assad was still a schoolboy, Damascus was a sleepy town of 300,000 inhabitants. By the time he seized control of the state in 1970, it had surpassed 800,000 — and by the late 1980s, it had exploded to over 3 million, according to Patrick Seale’s Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East.

This demographic transformation was accompanied by what Syrian intellectual Sadiq al-Azm called the rise of the "merchant-military complex." When the Baath Party seized power in a coup in 1963, Seale writes, there were only 55 "millionaires," in Syrian lire, in the entire country. That figure expanded to 1,000 millionaires in 1973, and rose to 3,500 by 1976 — of whom 10 percent were worth 100 million Syrian lire (roughly $25 million). Under Syria’s centralized economy at the time, the path to enrichment was through Hafez and his Baath party. This trend only accelerated under Bashar, whose billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf has been estimated to control 60 percent of the Syrian economy.

As Bashar strengthened his ties with the nouveaux riches in Damascus and Aleppo, the children of the countryside found themselves left out in the cold. The International Statistical Institute’s World Fertility Survey’s report on Syria shows that rural women birthed roughly three more children, on average, than their urban counterparts during the peak of the country’s demographic boom. Many of these youths looked to make it good in Syria’s rapidly swelling urban centers, straining the capacity of these cities to the limit.

But whether these Syrians stayed in the country or made their way to the cities, they found it nearly impossible to pull themselves up from the bootstraps. "At the national level, growth was not pro-poor," a 2004 report produced jointly by the Syrian government and the UNDP assessed politely, as it highlighted the country’s rising income inequality.

Syria’s education system has contributed to this problem by utterly failing to pave the way to meaningful employment. A 2009 Syrian government survey found that more than half of Syrians leave school before finishing their secondary education, and that an overwhelming majority of this group assessed that their schooling was of little or no use in their first job. The report went on to find that students found the most success in finding work through family and friend ties, but noted that "the efficiency of job allocation patters based on informal networks is questionable."

There is no small amount of irony in the current crisis, though Bashar may not care to recognize it. Just as his Alawite community came down from the mountains in generations past to seize control of the state, the citizens filling Syria’s streets for the past eight months are also seeking to reverse decades of marginalization. And as they move through Syria’s squares and alleyways, they are slowly circling closer to the center.

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